By Joan Wages,
National Women’s History Museum President and CEO
How many women currently serve in Congress?
Name the first American woman to fly in space.
How many women serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies?
If you didn’t know the answer to any or most of these questions, don’t feel bad. The National Women’s History Museum has discovered that most Americans don’t know much about our nation’s heroines. In fact, if we had to grade Americans on their women’s history – the majority would get an ‘F.’ A survey of 1,000 American men and women asked how much they knew about women like Ida B. Wells, Sally Ride, and Elizabeth Blackwell and discovered that fewer than one in four Americans are familiar with major female historical figures as compared to male figures like Frederick Douglass, Paul Revere, and Neil Armstrong.
So what, you might ask? As we celebrate national Women’s History Month, these survey results echo why this month’s designation is so important.
In the 21st century where gender stereotypes about women in sports, science, and on screen are being challenged and cracks are expanding in the traditional barriers that define the glass ceiling, women’s history is an important piece of helping men and women learn the complete story of EVERYONE who played a role in our nation’s evolving success. Women have contributed significantly to our country –yet, so few Americans know their names and what they have done. Many people don’t know about Sybil Ludington, an extraordinarily brave young woman who in 1777 rode tirelessly through the night to warn about the arrival of the British to Boston and to rally her father’s militia, riding further than her more popularly known historical counterpart, Paul Revere.
Then, there is Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, or Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an ardent opponent of lynching and a key figure in the civil rights and woman suffrage movement. Although Sally and Ida were more easily recognized by respondents, on average still fewer than one in four Americans were familiar with these and other major female historical figures.
That should not be surprising since only 15 percent of figures in history textbooks are women. Our country’s practice has been to overlook and in some cases, even omit the contributions of women from our nation’s history. Men have thousands of years of history and more than two-thirds of Americans know it.
Scholar Janice Law Trecker said, “The fact of the matter is not that women haven’t made important contributions, but that their history has not been recorded.” Women have been left out for too long and it’s time to correct that.
As we commemorate National Women’s History Month, this is the perfect opportunity to take a moment to learn more about women’s long history of accomplishments to our country. It is also the perfect time to show your support for an effort underway to build a women’s history museum in Washington, DC on or near the National Mall that would display the breadth and scope of women accomplishments in American history. That’s why we at the National Women’s History Museum are leading a social media campaign, #helpusbuildit, to encourage everyone, including young boys and girls, to help us in this task of building a women’s history museum. We encourage everyone to join at www.helpusbuildit.org.
America has wonderful museums on everything, from automobiles to zoology,– isn’t it time that women’s history also had a home? Imagine how much our young girls and boys can learn and what inspiration they can gain from visiting a place that shows that that both men and women played a part in our country’s rich history.
About the National Women’s History Museum
Founded in 1996, the National Women’s History Museum, currently located online at www.nwhm.org, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational institution dedicated to preserving, interpreting, and celebrating the diverse historic contributions of women and integrating this rich heritage fully into our nation’s history. The Museum’s goal is to build a world-class, permanent museum on the National Mall that will herald and display the collective history of American women. In December 2014, legislation passed Congress to create a Federal Commission to study and produce a plan for a women’s history museum on or near the Mall.